When I was reading Edward the Black Prince: Power in Medieval Europe by David Green, I was surprised by his comments about the increase in crime after the Black Death had died out in England. This was unexpected and it intrigued me, so I decided to find out more.
It might be that fourteenth century society was just going that way and tending towards lawlessness and the Black Death simply broke the last bounds. Bad weather in the early part of the century had led to poor harvests and famine in England. Somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the population died from starvation and the diseases that came with famine between 1314 and 1321. Those who survived would have been weakened by the experience. Life was already very difficult before the Black Death arrived.
In 1348 the Commons complained to the king about lawlessness in the country and the failure of the justices to deal with it properly. They asked that the shires be allowed to appoint their own justices rather than wait for the royal justices to arrive in a county before cases could be heard. Edward III refused. In his coronation oath he had sworn to uphold the law and to judge everyone with fairness. It was, therefore, his duty to ensure that justice was done, not anyone else’s. Anyone taking on this right in his stead was really taking away some of the king’s power.
It might be that the king didn’t see an increase in crime as a serious problem and it is possible that the Commons were trying to increase their own power at the cost of the king’s, but the fact that they raised it at all, and presumably presented evidence to support their case, demonstrates that they thought there was a problem of some kind in the country.
In 1346 there was another poor harvest and there were food riots in different parts of the country. When the Black Death arrived in 1348, then, there was already some tendency towards lawlessness. As people began to die from the plague, society started to break down and it became difficult to replace those responsible for law and order when they died. It never did quite break down in most of England, but there was looting from the dead and dying. Most of the increase in crime was to do with the theft of foodstuffs, not surprisingly, since there were fewer people to work the land. Those who did continue to labour and produce crops were afraid to go into the towns to sell them, so people in towns grew hungry.
Some people were desperate enough to steal the clothes off the backs of corpses, even those who had died of plague. There’s at least one recorded instance of a man breaking into a house to steal. Finding the owner’s corpse in bed, he undressed it and took the clothes. This was not an isolated incident and shows the desperation of people who were surely aware of the dangers of being in proximity to a plague corpse.
This lawlessness carried on after the plague, with public disorder growing markedly.
As people began to avoid contact with one another, realising that it seemed to spread the plague, it became more difficult to replace those who died who had been responsible for maintaining order. This also meant that the quality and experience of those holding those positions of authority decreased, which meant that the work was done less effectively.
As the effects of the plague became clear, land owners began to be afraid of what their tenants might do. The value of land fell while the cost of labour rose, which meant that the landowners were no longer making as much money from the land and so were not able to pay those working on it as much. People travelled away from their birthplaces to find work that paid enough to enable them to live. This was a cause of great unrest. Many new laws were passed in the 1350s and 1360s, indicating that those in authority felt that they needed to impose order on chaos. That they didn’t think they had succeeded is demonstrated by the number of new laws that were harsher restatements of earlier laws.
Fourteenth century was a society that really only had two punishments for crime: mutilation or death. A man could be hanged if he stole something worth more than twelvepence. Rape was another capital crime, although convictions were few. There were no prisons and death probably didn’t seem as much as a deterrent as it had before the Black Death, despite the fact that, since the death sentence was supposed to be a deterrent, the execution itself was made as painful as possible. Some people simply became more reckless when they thought the end of the world had come. If everyone was going to die, and there seemed to be no reason to believe that this wasn’t the case, then there was no reason to hold back. If you were going to die, better to do so after having enjoyed a few days of a better life.